Black Lives Matter and the strategy question

August 12, 2015

Crystal Stella Becerril and Trish Kahle contribute to the ensuing discussion after a Black Lives Matter protest in Seattle prevented Bernie Sanders from speaking.

ON AUGUST 8, Sen. Bernie Sanders took the stage at a rally to defend Social Security in Seattle and thanked the city for "being one of the most progressive cities in the United States of America."

Before he could address the crowd again, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, two Black women leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement, took the stage and demanded a chance to speak: "We'd like an opportunity to own the mic." When the senator deferred to the event organizer for a decision, Willaford threatened to shut down the event, saying, "If you do not listen to her, your event will be shut down right now. Your decision."

Johnson, who eventually won the argument with the organizers, took the microphone and spoke of anti-Black racism, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline and gentrification, to cheers from some people in the crowd. The majority, however, was upset that their event to address the issue of how to defend Social Security was interrupted and effectively "shut down." Many began to jeer the protesters and demanded that they be removed from the stage to allow Sanders to speak.

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The tension between the Black Lives Matter protesters who took over the rally to make their voices heard and the crowd who became outraged when their event was shut down reached the tipping point when Johnson, through tears and sobs, said, "We are going to honor the memory of Michael Brown; and we are going to honor all of the Black lives lost this year; and we are going to honor the fact that I had to fight through all these people to say my life matters! That I had to get up here in front of a bunch of screaming white racists to say my life fucking matters!"

The vulnerability of being on the receiving end of jeering from a mostly white crowd when trying to speak about the violence done to the Black community by the state no doubt confirmed many of the two women's deep-seated beliefs about white liberals and white supremacy. However, it's hard to imagine a disruption of a rally to defend Social Security, not a political candidate's campaign trail appearance, happening without any objection from the attendees--especially when they were accused of being "a bunch of screaming white racists."

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Socialist Worker readers debated the Black Lives Matter action in Seattle that disrupted Bernie Sanders' speech. Read the Views and articles related to this discussion.

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At this point, many in the audience began yelling variations of "How dare you?!" to Johnson, as the booing intensified. The organizers approached Johnson, presumably to ask her to wrap up, but Johnson simply replied: "You need to let me speak or I will shut it down. Get out of my face!"

The protest immediately sparked debate on the left. Some argued that disruption was exactly what the Sanders campaign should be confronted with if it continued to stall on adding a strong Black Lives Matter plank to its platform. Others worried that activists would divide the left voting bloc that some see as cohering around the Sanders campaign. Still others wondered why Sanders appears to be the main target of Black Lives Matter activists around the country, instead of, say, Hillary Clinton.

All of these concerns, however, miss the most important point: that this event has become such a flashpoint for debate because the action cuts to the heart of the question of strategy, not tactics, and strategy is a question that looms large for the Black Lives Matter movement.

A full year on after the death of Mike Brown, thousands of activists have coalesced around the demand "Black Lives Matter," a demand which evokes not only the struggle against police terrorism, but also the fight for economic justice, access to education and more. However, without national organization, BLM activists have struggled to forge a clear agenda. In such a broad movement, which galvanized both seasoned organizers and people drawn to activism for the first time, large and looming political debates about the future of our struggle have mostly been shunted aside in favor of the next mobilization.

Taking time for political debate has been difficult as the racist state continues on its murderous rampage, killing more than three people a day since the beginning of 2015. Yet this protest, and the response it provoked, demonstrates that putting the debate about strategy on the back burner is no longer an option.

The first point to make isn't that the tactic was right or wrong: that assessment can only follow after we have determined whether or not the tactic advanced our strategy, so this debate must necessarily revolve around strategy, and we should be clear what the stakes of the debate are: We are talking about nothing less than the future of the most important American social movement in more than a generation.

And we must also be clear that while we agree with Johnson and Willaford that Black lives matter, we also disagree about other things: What kind of movement can actually challenge racism in the U.S.? How do we build that kind of movement? Only after we answer these questions can we answer the question of what tactics will help us achieve those goals.

Johnson and Willaford's perspective becomes clear both through the statement they put out as a press release as well as through their interaction with Sanders, his campaign staff and the crowd during Saturday's rally.

Their goal was not to move Sanders on the question of Black Lives Matter, but rather to decenter white discourse by "owning the mic." They wanted to force whites in the crowd to confront racial privilege, not to win them to participation in the struggle against racism. Rather, in this view, racism can be confronted through personal assertions of power by the oppressed, as in the moment when Willaford confronts the event manager, saying, "Stop talking. Do not tell me what to do."

In this analysis, white supremacy is the organizing principle of society, and disrupting the Sanders campaign event is a logical course of action. Thus, trying to engage these activists by arguing that the tactic is "not helpful" completely misses the point.

MARXISTS ARGUE that we actually have different goals. Our goal is to build a movement based on Black leadership and multiracial solidarity to challenge the racism embedded in capitalism to its core. Marxists also argue that white workers can--and must--be won to the struggle for Black liberation as a pre-condition for the self-emancipation of the class as a whole.

For us, capitalism is the organizing logic of society, and even as racism has been central to capitalism's survival, the "scarcity on purpose" we experience under capitalism helps ensure that race survives as a framework through which people understand the world around them.

Yet working-class unity cannot be forged by ignoring divisions. Racism and other backward ideas held by workers must be actively overcome and shed through the process of struggle, or unity will be false.

Because Marxists see the fight against racism as a central component to building international working-class unity on which the struggle against capitalism depends, involving broad swaths of the working class, Black and non-Black, in the struggle for Black liberation represents a key medium-term strategic goal--and this is a goal, we believe, that is worth fighting for inside the Black Lives Matter movement.

Additionally, Marxists see electoral politics as an important site of struggle. This doesn't mean advocating support for the Sanders campaign, but rather understanding the dialectical relationship between the politics of the street and the stage of national politics. This means grappling with the historic role of the Democratic Party and the role the left wing of that party has played in the co-optation of social movements.

While both the Democrats and the Republicans are parties of capital, the Republicans are open bigots, while the Democrats espouse equality and claim to be the party of the people. Both parties are dangerous, but the Democrats are perhaps more insidious and present one of the central political challenges to the independent expression of political power by the working class, in which Black people are disproportionately represented.

From this strategic analysis, tactical considerations follow. First, open bigots like Donald Trump must be confronted at every turn. We don't want to take over their events. We want to stop their hate speech before it ever leaves their trash-filled mouths.

The Democrats present a slightly different problem: They claim to be opposed to racism, and many do oppose racism's most obvious forms, such as legal segregation and hate speech. Yet the Democratic Party is also a capitalist party, and thus benefits from the persistence of the racism which continues to pervade every aspect of our society: from the criminal injustice system to the education system, from housing to employment to political representation.

This makes them more vulnerable to protests against racism than the Republicans. It is this vulnerability which led Sanders to adopt an anti-racism platform by Sunday afternoon.

And yet, the motor of these shifts remain in the streets, not in any claim to moral authority by the Democratic Party. Sanders's new platform was a response to consistent challenges to his campaign from Black activists in a climate where it is not politically viable for a serious presidential candidate who considers himself a progressive to remain silent on racist injustice.

Therefore, continually challenging Sanders on these issues is an imperative for our movement. It matters what platform Sanders ultimately runs on because it will shape the political terrain on which we struggle in the streets for the next election cycle, and because a changed political climate may hasten reform victories that can embolden the movement and broaden the horizons of what masses of people believe is possible.

DEMANDING THAT the movement be heard was the right approach, and yet it seems that, at best, the disruption of Sanders's event in Seattle was a missed opportunity precisely because we haven't yet forged enough space for political debate among the different political tendencies inside the movement.

For a year, we have discussed "What will we do?" But eventually, the debate over where we want to go must be had openly. Thus, the lesson we draw from the Seattle protest is that a democratically decided strategy is an imperative for the movement's political development and for its vitality.

So this isn't about whether "shutting shit down" was the appropriate tactic to employ at this particular moment, or whether it's ever an appropriate tactic (we know it often is). It's about how our movements come to determine those things.

It's about being able and willing to delineate between different sets of politics with different sets of goals and strategies, as it is those very things that determine the tactics employed. For Marxists, it also means figuring out how to navigate these spaces of differing and often opposing politics, and arguing for genuine political debate.

Everyone in this debate agrees that Black Lives Matter. But clearly we don't all agree on how we can make the state listen and act on our demands. As Marxists, we believe that we do that by uniting the working class around a principled opposition to racism, and by working to build a strong united front that can move our struggles forward.

As people around the country rise up in the biggest struggle against racism in more than a generation, this is a debate that is worth the hard struggle to win.

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